Neel Radia talks about his voluntary role as chair of the National Association of Care Catering and his passionate quest to save the Meals on Wheels service for the next generation. Rosalind Mullen reports
We're here to talk about your role at the National Association of Care Catering (NACC), but presumably to do it well you need the support of your employer?
Yes. I've been business development director at Raj Foods for the past 10 years. It is a manufacturer of halal and ethnic meals that meet religious and cultural needs for hospitals, schools and care homes. The company has been very supportive of my voluntary role as NACC chair. They believe in its values because they are similar to theirs. Nevertheless, it still means I have to balance my own time with company time. I work weekends, holidays and evenings to do my NACC work, but it's my choice.
What appealed to you about being involved with the NACC?
A client introduced me to it when I was new to the industry. At my first meeting, I thought it was wonderful. Everyone was engaged and keen to look at ways to raise standards in the care sector. When I found out they were volunteers who were passionate about helping those in the sector, I was intrigued.
I am an Indian guy from a tight-knit family. My elders and parents influenced me to think that the most important things are food, shelter and warmth, so the NACC appealed. It raises standards for a population that don't have a voice. Care caterers need to raise the bar to meet nutritional wellbeing for older people. That hit home because it is my background.
And you've since been re-elected for a second term
Yes, I was re-elected in September. A lot of members and the board asked me to consider it because we had started to make progress in solving many challenges, but I needed more time to see them through. I need to give 110%, but my employer continues to be supportive.
What improvements have you been making?
I have been pushing the first health and social care catering NVQ qualification. The NACC has worked in partnership with the Hospital Caterers Association and Barnet and Southgate College to create an NVQ Level 2 Diploma in Professional Cookery in Health and Social Care Catering. The pilot has come to an end now and it is our aspiration to start rolling it out to colleges from winter 2017.
The NVQ will be the first recognised qualification in our sector. It is such a specialised area because staff are dealing with different dietary requirements, allergies, cultures and issues, such as swallowing difficulties. It is, therefore, important for chefs to produce safe, nutritious food that looks appetising as well as able to be eaten (or fed to them) in a dignified way. So training needs to be across the whole team.
Radia with Bev Puxley, NACC head judge, and Oliver Smith, NACC Care Cook of the Year 2015
Why is a sector-specific qualification important?
It is a step forward in getting the sector recognised and to open the door to younger chef talent from colleges.
I have spoken to lots of college students and they all want to work in Michelin-starred outlets. They don't consider care homes as a career choice because they think it will be boring and the food will be horrible. Part of my work is to break that misconception. We are getting younger chefs to go out to the colleges to explain why they moved over from restaurants. For instance, there are better working hours and the food tends to be more creative rather than working on a restaurant set menu. Not only do they need to learn a diverse style of cooking, they need to cook texture-modified meals for people with swallowing difficulties.
We have an annual Care Cook of the Year competition and the quality of entrants is high considering they are producing quality food on a budget.
And a few of your initiatives are hot off the press
Yes. People think the care sector just looks after older people, but we also look after children in, for example, foster care. We are going into partnership with the Children Food Trust and Fostering Network to explore the issues that can prevent children in care from eating well and from growing up with the skills they need to do so as adults.
We will look at what support is given to foster carers and staff in residential homes to help children in care to eat healthily. We will then make recommendations on what more could be done to help children in care to eat well. The focus is to get guidance in line with the school's food guide. It could take years.
What keeps you awake at night?
One of the biggest challenges has been the Meals on Wheels (MoW) issue. It is a passion of mine - a no-brainer. It helps to keep older people well and at home for longer. When you look at the expense of the NHS, it doesn't make sense to cut funding.
I would like to see the protection of the MoW provision to people who cannot get out of their home and are maybe depressed or feel isolated. We have launched a petition calling for MoW to be statutory protected and funded. It is clearly an important service. Age UK estimates that there are around 300,000 people aged 65 and over in England who need help with eating or have difficulty eating unaided, while malnutrition is estimated to affect 1.3 million elderly people.
But how threatened is it?
One-third of services in England have shut down and the government cutbacks continue to threaten it. In the past decade the number of meals served has halved. It is not statutory protected, so some local authorities are simply providing a list of supermarkets or takeaways. This is impractical - old people don't have computers, for instance - and they need the social lifeline.
Part of the NACC's work is to raise the profile of MoW, otherwise the service will disappear. As an association we have always had a National Meals on Wheels Week to promote and raise awareness of this service, but momentum is building and it's our last chance to protect a service that is shutting down for lack of funding.
How will you persuade the government it so important?
The facts are that ultimately it is a preventive measure that will save the NHS money. Recently, the chief executive for the NHS reminded the government of this. We need industry leaders like that to speak out. It is a huge challenge, but even from a moral point of view we have to protect these services. You will need that care service when you get old and we all have parents approaching old age. If we don't change things now, who will do it for us? That motivates me with anything I do. These are vulnerable people and we need to share best practice.
Mark Lewis, publisher of The Caterer, accompanied Radia last year to see Meals on Wheels in action
What new ideas are you exploring to save it?
One proposal is to pursue a social enterprise model. The NACC is in a joint working partnership with the charity Sustain. We have done some research on four modules that have been operated by some councils separately from the traditional MoW model. We hope these could make it more economical for local authorities to retain the service. We are putting together a booklet for local authority decision-makers that outlines these working models, which ensure the MoW service is sustainable and provides a return on investment both socially and economically. This is a proactive document that will find a solution for the problem and it will launch later this year.
Can you give us a taster?
Hertfordshire Independent Living is one example of a successful model that could be adapted to sustain MoW provision. It started by delivering 200 meals in 2007 and now delivers an average of 1,800 a day, providing a 365-day service. In June it was awarded a package of funding and high-calibre business support worth £550,000 by charity Social Business Trust.
While some similar preventative services are reliant on either volunteer support or private providers, Hertfordshire's charitable model, combining business efficiency with compassion, is enabling it to expand. The authorities need to consider the options but having a moral responsibility is far greater than the economical side. I agree that finding volunteers to deliver meals on wheels is difficult nowadays. But I hope by the time I have finished as chair that we have made a step forward on this.
You are also at the vanguard of palliative care and catering
As an association, we recognise the depth of understanding needed to cater for people in palliative care. Many members cater for patients in hospices and to help them we are putting together a workshop at our annual Training and Development Forum on 6 October. It will look specifically at catering for people in palliative care, paying attention to how medication can alter taste and how to work around these challenges.
The role of NACC chair carries a lot of responsibility
To be blunt, being chair is a lot of work and it is voluntary. Some people think I work full time for the NACC. It is a not-for-profit organisation and our income comes from annual training and development courses, membership, guidelines for the care system and projects that enable us to look at research. The executive committee is voluntary and there are six regions. The only wages we pay are to the administration team. We keep expenses to a minimum. I also used to do other charity work, including a day a month at a local hospice.
When do you step down?
I officially step down in October 2017, which is our 30th anniversary - a wonderful milestone. I have felt honoured to be part of it.
Neel Radia in a nutshell
- Day job Raj Foods, a manufacturer of halal and ethnic meals for the care and health sector
- 2008 Elected regional chair for the South East region of the NACC for six years, during which time he won the Region of the Year at the NACC Awards on four occasions
- 2013 Elected to the position of national chair
- 2015 Winner of the Foodservice Cateys Extra Mile Award
About the National Association of Care Catering
- The NACC is a member organisation with a defined structure managed by an elected national executive
- In 1985, 12 authorities (Bolton, Manchester, Durham, Avon, Lancashire, Bradford, Cleveland, Leeds, Calderdale, Cumbria, Nottinghamshire and Humberside) founded the Advisory Body for Social Services Catering
- In September 2002 it was renamed the National Association of Care Catering to reflect the changes taking place in the care sector and to embrace the private sector of the care industry
- Members are drawn from all areas of the care catering industry - residential homes or day care for people with disabilities, the elderly, or young people. It also encompasses the delivery and production of fresh or frozen meals to day centres or people's homes.
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